Vladimir Nabokov? Harry B. Smith? Augustus Thomas? George M. Cohan? George Abbott? Steven Spielberg? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, I saw a fascinating quotation about writing that was attributed to the brilliant prose stylist Vladimir Nabokov:
The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.
This figurative representation of plot mechanics was shrewd and vibrant, but I do not think that Nabokov would grammatically pair the phrase “the main character” with the pronoun “them”. Would you please explore the origin of this storytelling advice?
Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Vladimir Nabokov made this statement. He was born in 1899, and the earliest strong match known to QI was published shortly before that date.
In November 1897 the “Bridgeport Herald” of Bridgeport, Connecticut discussed several contemporary dramatic productions within a section titled “At the Theatres”. The newspaper presented the following anonymous guidance for playwrights. Boldface has been added to excerpts:
The best advice ever given writers of farce is in these words: “In the first act get your principal character up a tree; in the second act, throw stones at him; in the third, get him down gracefully.” This recipe Mr. Smith has followed in writing “The Wizard of the Nile.”
The libretto of the operetta “The Wizard of the Nile” was written by Harry B. Smith who was a very popular and prolific writer for the American stage. The passage above asserted that Smith adhered to the formula, but the text did not name Smith as originator. In later years the formula was assigned directly to Smith.
This initial citation was located by top researcher Barry Popik, and his discussion of this topic is available here.
In December 1897 the “Fitchburg Sentinel” of Fitchburg, Massachusetts presented the same formula for the construction of a humorous play:
Following the approved recipe for farce writing, the author manages to get Mr. Daniels up a tree in the first act, he throws stones at him in the second, and in the third act he gets him down again. The detail of the story is spoken of as fully as clever and amusing as was “The Wizard of the Nile,” and the other characters are even stronger.
This stratagem for designing narratives has been circulating for more than one hundred and fifteen years. The attribution has shifted over time to point to storytellers who were active in popular media during different eras such as Harry B. Smith, George M. Cohan, and Steven Spielberg. Certainly, this schema has been re-expressed by many individuals, yet the originator has remained anonymous.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.